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H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-Catholic@h-net.msu.edu (May 2007) Isidore of Seville. _The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville_. Translated and edited by Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xii + 475 pp. Bibliography, index. $150.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-83749-1. Reviewed for H-Catholic by Christopher Denny, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, St. John's University Unifying Knowledge for a Changing Culture Several years ago a "net-roots" movement arose within the Catholic Church to induce the Vatican to name Isidore, a seventh-century bishop of Seville, the patron saint of the Internet. Secular news media delighted in the anachronistic juxtaposition of a little-known Spanish saint from the so-called Dark Ages, whose life and work might seem completely irrelevant, to the Internet age in which we live. Isidore's candidacy for the position, which has yet to draw an official proclamation from the Roman curia, has centered upon his most famous work, the _Etymologies_. Supporters of Isidore's cause argued that this work can be understood as a database, and that Isidore's attempt at summarizing all knowledge can be interpreted as an analogue to the World Wide Web at the turn of the millennium. Isidore's candidacy for the title of Internet patron saint is thus a reflection of the contemporary technocratic society's identification of the possession of data with knowledge. Just as the Web provides users with access to seemingly limitless amounts of data, this campaign judges that Isidore's own work can be seen as a successful attempt to pursue the same goal in the context of the early Middle Ages. In this light, there is no denying Isidore's influence in Catholic history. The _Etymologies_ served as a reference book for the entire medieval era in Western Europe, and in 1722 Isidore was granted the elite title of Doctor of the Church, a group which to this day includes only thirty-three Catholic men and women. Yet up until this past year, there has been no complete translation of this seminal work of medieval intellectual history into English. Now Stephen Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof have teamed up with Cambridge University Press to offer English readers a critical edition of the unabridged _Etymologies_. Barney, professor emeritus at the University of California Riverside, has previously edited and annotated Chaucer's _Troilus and Criseyde_ and just completed a commentary on _Piers Plowman_. Lewis and Barney have also previously collaborated on a translation of the anonymous _Tractatus de Proprietatibus Sermonum_, an anonymous medieval text dealing with semantics, which has prepared them well for Isidore's technical presentation in the areas of grammar, logic, rhetoric, and etymology. It is a testament to Isidore's ability as a polymath that scholars in the fields of history, philosophy, classics, linguistics, semantics, and religious studies owe this quartet of translators profound thanks for their efforts in making Isidore more accessible to readers who do not have command of the _Latina lingua_. As an encyclopedic work, the _Etymologies_ presents editors with daunting challenges, and in this instance the team of translators has relied upon the 1911 text of Wallace Lindsay. Even after the choice of text has been settled, however, translators have many additional obstacles in confronting Isidore's tome, despite the simplicity of much of the prose in it. First, there is the range of material that the work covers, and Isidore's detailed classifications of intellectual genera and species demand translators who are fluent in vocabulary from many fields. Second, the work was left unfinished at Isidore's death in 636. It was left to Isidore's disciple Braulio to provide the final division of the _Etymologies_ into twenty books, and within the text itself no evidence survives that would serve as an authoritative guide for understanding its internal arrangement. Thus translators cannot rely upon a prescribed architectonic structure to guide them in rendering Isidore's Latin into a modern language. Finally, much of Isidore's work as an encyclopedist was of course derivative, borrowing from diverse sources such as Varro, Pliny the Elder, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Donatus, Orosius, Boethius, and Cassiodorus, not to mention the second and third hand influences at work in Isidore's compilation. Therefore a translator of the _Etymologies_ is not simply translating a text, but a palimpsest that is a product of literary and intellectual traditions separated by centuries, all brought together by Isidore within the clerical milieu of early seventh-century Visigothic Spain. The "Web" that Isidore constructs is not completely of his own making, and so the task of translation involves crosschecking sources that in many cases cannot be identified with certainty. The introduction of this new edition begins with a very brief synopsis of the life and times of Isidore. Those not familiar with Isidore's biography will want to reference the extensive work of Jacques Fontaine and Pierre Cazier in this area. Much more attention is given in the introduction to the sources and features of Isidore's text itself. This is crucial to understanding the work, for as the translators note, "to assess Isidore's achievement we cannot look to original researches or innovative interpretations, but rather to the ambition of the whole design, to his powers of selection and organization, and to his grand retentiveness" (p. 10). In a traditional sense this judgment is of course true. But the reader should not take this verdict too far, as one could claim that postmodern scholarship has rightly recognized that selection and organization are themselves forms of interpretation. Barney et. al. note that Isidore is heir to the twin traditions of etymologizing and encyclopedias, but Isidore's combining of these traditions into a single text is itself a mark of originality that has no precise counterpart in these previous traditions, even in Varro. In _European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages_ (1948) E. R. Curtius made this same point regarding Isidore, noting that the genre of compilation was highly valued in late antiquity. Indeed, it is Isidore's originality as an organizer that makes the purpose of the _Etymologies_ so difficult to determine. The translators note that Isidore's organization vacillates. In selected passages, he structured his text as an encyclopedia, in other passages as an alphabetically-organized gloss, and in still other passages as a guide to the seven liberal arts later studied in the medieval cathedral schools of the post-Carolingian era. Braulio's titles for the individual books, sounding not all that different from the categories in a contemporary televised game of trivia, merely hint at the variety contained in the work: "Grammar," "Medicine," "God, angels, and saints," "The human being and portents," "Buildings and fields," "Stones and metals," "Ships, buildings, and clothing." It is the last of these three systems of organization, that of the liberal arts, that provided Isidore with his initial starting point in the _Etymologies_, and his first three books dutifully work their way through the _trivium_ and the _quadrivium_. At the very opening of the text, Isidore draws upon Plato and Aristotle in claiming that knowledge (_scientia_) is characterized by having only one possible outcome, and this singular goal is what allows a branch of learning to be considered a genuine discipline (_disciplina_). By contrast, the subject matter of an art (_ars_) is capable of producing multiple conclusions, based on opinions that merely resemble the truth. Isidore's conception of truth, then, is not based merely upon the gathering of data but upon a univocal understanding of reality, which contrasts strongly with postmodernism's bracketing of truth claims in the name of pluralism. In service to this univocal understanding of knowledge, Isidore's presentation of "the seven disciplines of the liberal arts," begins with a view of grammar that shuns human convention and grounds human speech within a sacralized origin and form (p. 39). The Latin language for Isidore was originally the product of divine revelation, as he holds that the nymph Carmentis taught Italians the Latin alphabet, itself derived from Hebrew and the Law of Moses. Whether Isidore's references to pagan deities throughout the _Etymologies_ are simply matters of early medieval euhemerism (cf. 3.70.20, 37-39; 8.11) or a willingness to entertain subsidiary revelations outside the biblical tradition is here of secondary significance. More to the point is Isidore's conviction that language is revealed to human beings. It is not simply constructed by humans for functional or pragmatic use. That is why Isidore holds that even elements of speech from accents to etymologies can reflect "nature," rather than mere "whim" or "fancy." For Isidore, nature in language is not syntactical but iconic, as each word in human speech is best related to the essence of its referent, prior to its relationship to other words. Accordingly, Isidore shows a partiality for definitions and etymologies that privilege the substantial over the functional, what Isidore calls "notional" (pp. 84-85). It is fitting that immediately after Isidore claims that "exposition of words often enough reveals what they mean, for some hold the rationale of their names in their own derivations," his first example of this principle regards the names of God (p. 153). Contemporary linguists, nurtured on theories of structuralism and post-structuralism, will find Isidore's theories of knowledge and language naÔve. Historians of religion will find his classicist view of the superiority of Latin to other tongues ethnocentric. Regardless, Isidore's grammatical foundations for human knowledge already betray a wide gulf between his views on truth and knowledge and those of the Internet era. Isidore wrote the _Etymologies_ not to compile facts but to organize human inquiry into its respective disciplines. For Isidore these inquiries ultimately reveal humanity's dependence upon the divine, more or less adequately conceived depending on one's proximity to the God of Jesus Christ. So Isidore tags David as the first creator of hymns, Solomon as the first composer of wedding songs, Jeremiah as the first to write laments, and Moses as the original writer of history. Pagan analogues to these literary models are derivative because they stand at a further remove from the one God, who is the original source of revelation and knowledge. Yet even the most exclusivist of Christian philosophers and theologians could not rest satisfied with this account of the origin of human knowledge, as factors other than religious origins must be admitted to account for the diversity in intellectual frameworks throughout history. So, moving through the other disciplines of the _trivium_, Isidore admits that it was the pagan Greeks who invented rhetoric, and Romans like Cicero who excelled at it. Rhetoric, however, is a derivative discipline secondary to grammar, and so Isidore relegates it to the sphere of adornment: "A speech is amplified and adorned with figures of words and of expressions. Because a straight and continuous oration makes for weariness and disgust as much for the speaker as for the hearer, it should be inflected and varied into other forms, so that it might refresh the speaker" (p. 75). The crux of the matter: the Latin of the Vulgate may not match that used in Cicero's orations against Catiline, but for Isidore that does not detract from the primacy of the biblical revelation. Indeed, Isidore maintains that even in the discipline of dialectic (_dialectica_) or philosophy, the so-called "art of arts," the Bible contains the three primary branches of philosophy as adumbrated by the Greeks. Christians can therefore find a presentation of natural philosophy in Genesis, moral philosophy in Proverbs, and logic in the gospels. Isidore's intellectual and religious balancing act, trying as it does to privilege the primacy of revelation over both reason and historical contingency in all fields of human inquiry, consistently totters at the edge of inconsistency. As he moves from the _trivium_ to the _quadrivium_, his claim that mathematics is an indispensable aid for the allegorical interpretation of Scripture is traditional enough. Yet he goes further in a mathematical encomium that sounds more Pythagorean than biblical: "Remove numbers from all things, and everything perishes. Take away the computation of time, and blind ignorance embraces all things; those who are ignorant of the method of calculation cannot be differentiated from the other animals" (p. 90). Can one really find support in the Christian tradition for the claim, which Isidore repeats approvingly, that "the universe itself is composed from a certain harmony of sounds" (p. 95)? To take another example, Isidore's condemnation of pagan "stupidity" regarding polytheistic influences on Roman astronomy is hardly surprising. Yet Isidore's claim that "although these pagan sages [Plato, Aristotle, etc.] were not devoted to heavenly wisdom, nevertheless they rightly struck down these errors by their witness to the truth" and took the order of the seven liberal arts "as far as the stars" (p. 107), bespeaks a fundamental ambivalence toward the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition. This same ambivalence can be found in earlier Latin Fathers such as Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine. By the fifth book of the _Etymologies_, Isidore moves towards codifying the ambiguous relationship between pagan and Christian by means of the categories of law and nature. Isidore's presentation here would be a major influence on medieval legal theory up through the time of Aquinas. The divine laws, first explained by Moses, are rooted in nature, while human laws stem from varying customs rooted in natural instinct. The comparison is of course similar to Isidore's contrast between an art and a discipline, and the privileging of the divine "one" over the human "many" is indicative of Isidore's understanding of truth. Indeed, Isidore's presentation on the name of God (_De deo_) in book 7 centers upon those divine attributes, such as incorruptibility and immutability, essential for the doctrine of classical theism with which some contemporary trinitarian theologians find fault. It is the decision whether to embrace or reject this one immutable truth, and the God who is Truth itself, that constitutes the distinction between the church (_convocatio_) and sects (_sectis_) in book 8. The well-known etymologies for the relevant words cement this taxonomy: religion (_religio_), heresy (_haeresis_), schism (_schisma_). "Religion (_religio_) is so called because through it we bind (_religare_) by the chain of service our souls to the one God" (p. 173). "'Heresy,' named with a Greek word, takes its meaning from 'choice,' by which each person, according to his own judgment, chooses for himself whatever he pleases to institute and adopt" (p. 174). This "freedom of choice," to use the modern phrase, contrasts strongly with Isidore's characterization of his own community: "We are permitted to introduce nothing based on our own judgment.... We have the apostles of God as authorities, who did not choose anything themselves to introduce from their own judgment" (p. 174). For Isidore, this conservative approach bolsters unity, in contrast with the schismatics, "so called from the division (_scissura_) of opinion" (p. 174). Heresies within the church are introduced by the contaminating opinions of philosophers. Valentinus is infected with "Platonic madness," Marcion with "Stoic" influences (8.6.22). On the surface Isidore's _Etymologies_ is an encyclopedia with a panoply of etymologically organized definitions, typologies, and historical derivations. It is this surface reading that makes Isidore's candidacy for patron saint of the Internet plausible at first glance. Beneath the surface, however, the _Etymologies_ represent another attempt in the centuries-old struggle by the Fathers of the Church to synthesize pagan learning and Christian faith. From the _Apologies_ of Justin Martyr onwards, the question of how to reconcile Athens and Jerusalem has been a central concern for Christian theologians. This concern, however, is not motivated primarily by a desire to gather encyclopedic facts. Rather, these attempts at synthesis necessarily involve imaginative constructions, religious models, and intellectual hierarchies that transcend whatever facts are used to illustrate them. The goal of Isidore's _Etymologies_, in intent if not in literary form, was to promote the construction of a metanarrative that made religious sense of a world in transition from a pagan past amidst a centralized empire, to an increasingly Christianized but fragmented social order. In conclusion, this new English translation of Isidore's most famous work should be ordered by every college and university _librarium_ worthy of the name, although its steep price tag could go some way toward a purchase of one of the hundreds of the medieval manuscripts of the _Etymologies_. The price rules out classroom use with the possible exception of specialized graduate-level courses in early medieval history and theology. If parceled out in short readings, any scholar in the humanities can find this text interesting for its glimpse of a medieval intellectual tradition in the making. But as far as Isidore's candidacy for Internet patronage goes, contemporary readers might wonder whether cyberscapes dominated by Google, Wikipedia, and bloggers contending for rhetorical influence really reflect the single-minded organizational rigor of Isidore's work. To find a contemporary analogue to Isidore's _Etymologies_ on the Internet, we must first ask, "Where is the one God in this machine?" Notes . Isidore of Seville, _Isidori Hispalensis Episcopi Etymologiarum sive Originum Libri XX,_ ed. Wallace M. Lindsay (Oxford: Clarendon, 1911). . Jacques Fontaine, _Isidore de Seville et la culture classique dans L'espagne wisigothique_ (Paris: Ežtudes Augustiniennes, 1959); and Pierre Cazier, _Isidore de Sežville et la naissance de l'Espagne catholique_ Thežologie historique 96 (Paris: Beauchesne, 1994). . Ernst R. Curtius, _European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages,_ trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Pantheon, 1953), 455-456. Copyright (c) 2006 by H-Net, all rights reserved. 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